Harper, the Art Academy-trained Modernist long popular locally for his streamlined and colorful wildlife imagery, was championed late in life by the designer Todd Oldham. In 2007, he shepherded a best-selling art book on Harper’s work, An Illustrated Life. Harper died at about the same time the book appeared, but his work has grown ubiquitous since.
Thunder-Sky, who died in 2004 at age 54, has a far different background. Considered an Outsider Artist, he probably had autism and was beset with numerous physical ailments when social worker Bill Ross discovered his drawings in 1999. Sometimes dressed in a clown costume, Thunder-Sky (his father was Native American) would visit construction sites around the city, using Magic Marker to imaginatively draw the works-in-progress as amusement parks, clown-suit companies and more.
Ross went on to champion Thunder-Sky’s work. He and Keith Banner created first Visionaries & Voices, dedicated to helping other artists with disabilities, and then the Northside nonprofit gallery Thunder-Sky, Inc., which furthers his legacy, sells his work and shows other self-taught artists like Antonio Adams.
“People are really fascinated by Raymond’s story,” Banner says.
The gallery has become locally accepted since opening in 2009, and Banner and Ross have become local advocates for de-romanticizing Outsider Art as a product of disabilities/primitivism and seeing it more broadly an alternative to art school. To them, too much of the following for Outsider Art has its roots in the way French artist Jean Dubuffet, influenced by the work of isolated psychiatric patients, came to champion “art brut” or “raw art.”
Banner and Ross’ mission is controversial — I read one article in The New York Times that said such attempts to broaden Outsider Art deprive it of what’s most interesting. But that mission is catching on internationally — helped by an avid following for Thunder-Sky on the Internetwww.neo-outsiders.com has developed a relationship with the gallery.
One manifestation is the current (and jam-packed) show, Hard Knocks: Art Without Art School, up through Aug. 12 at the gallery (4573 Hamilton Ave.), and for which it used its website and Facebook page to find artists — itself a comment on how plugged-in many Outsiders are these days. As a result, several are from England, along with others from locations outside Cincinnati. (A majority are local.)
The British artists are certainly savvy and talented. Ian Pyper’s drawings — posted to a wall via small magnets on a silvery metal sheet — have a playfully elegant Modernist sensibility. And Matthew Trikx’s colorful Magic Marker drawings on black foam-board suggest Biomorphic figuration enough to make one think of Miro. Overall quality in the show varies widely, but more than enough is rewarding to make this a valuable effort.
But while the world is beating a path to Thunder-Sky Gallery’s door, it’s also been beckoning to see the work of its namesake venture outside Cincinnati. In September, London’s unusual Museum of Everything (“for artists and creators living outside our modern society,” according to its website) will launch an international Outsider show featuring both Thunder-Sky and Adams. And next year, the GAIA Museum of Outsider Art in Randers, Denmark, will have a solo Thunder-Sky show.
The Museum of Everything exhibit is particularly intriguing because in its short existence — this will be its fourth show, all at different venues — it has created much excitement. The third exhibit was curated by Sir Peter Blake, the artist who designed the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
In addition to drawings by Thunder-Sky (including several uncompleted ones that Adams finished), the upcoming show will have an Adams sculpture of Terri Schiavo as a cat. (She was a woman in a long-term vegetative state whose husband wound up in a nasty court fight against her parents for permission to end life-prolonging care. He was able to do so in 2005.)
Banner says the international interest in Thunder-Sky the artist seems to have spiked after an article he wrote last year for Folk Art Messenger. It was titled “A Clown’s Prayer: Raymond Thunder-Sky’s Cultural Revolution” and explained how Thunder-Sky’s legacy has fueled interest in outsider art in Cincinnati.
“It was introducing the gallery, talking about Visionaries & Voices and also Thunder-Sky,” Banner explains. “I called it a ‘cultural revolution’ because his presence created this moment here where Outsider Art at least for the moment in Cincinnati has become a thing.”
Banner — who keeps separate blogs for each of his gallery’s shows at www.thunder-skyinc.blogspot.com — also this year delivered a paper for an Outsider Art conference at Nancy-Universite in Lorraine, France. There he discussed his and Ross’ ideas on the changing nature of Outsider Art, and seemed to get strong response.
“We’re trying to find a way to talk about Outsider Art so as it’s not always about isolation or what Dubuffet came up with but is a newer, more modern way to think about it,” Banner says. “The artists themselves want to bring professionalism to it. We go to fairs, and there’s this old-school/new-school tension — you can’t have a credit-card machine if you’re an outsider artist, or you can’t market yourselves. But all the artists in this (current) show are savvy and want to have careers in art. They all want to be in a museum some day, and all want to be good artists.”
HARD KNOCKS: ART WITHOUT ART SCHOOL is on view at Thunder-Sky, Inc., through Aug. 12.